Models of gender that aren’t based on self-identity

One model of gender is that you are the gender that you identify as. This is a great model because everyone gets to be the gender that they want to be. It is, by definition, desirable for people to get what they want.1

Many people express concerns about the self-identity model of gender. What if someone abuses it? What if someone disingenuously claims to be a woman, not because they want it, but for some strategic advantage? I don’t think this is much of an issue, since empirically this does not appear to happen very often, if at all. But the concern is noted.

I think a far more common issue is when someone is deciding what gender to identify as. You can’t use the self-identity model as a guide when your self-identity is precisely the thing in question. When the self-identity model works, it defines what is desirable, and that is well and good. But it’s necessary to find at least one other model to supplement it so we can understand what it is exactly that we’re desiring. Here I will briefly describe a few alternative models.

1. Naive models of gender

In my framing, the self-identity model is the foundation upon which all other models much be constructed. But most people take other models to be foundational. Many people believe that gender simply is who you are, what you’re born as. In service of this model, people often believe that there is some simple unambiguous trait common to all women, such as their genitals, or XX chromosomes. Almost all of these beliefs are factually incorrect.

We could come up with a slightly more charitable naive models. For example, maybe there is some essential property shared by all women (both cis and trans), and we simply haven’t found what that property is. Maybe neurologists could eventually discover this “woman” property.

The fundamental problem with these naive models is, simply put, that they aren’t enough like the self-identity model. These naive models assume either that we have a simple way to differentiate genders, or that we should seek one out. But having simple definitions isn’t desirable; people getting what they desire is desirable.

Excluding those cases where people are questioning their gender identity, women are those people who want to be women. We might eventually discover that all such people have some simple property in common (aside from wanting to be women), but there’s no reason to expect such a discovery.

2. Gender performativity

Contemporary philosopher Judith Butler says that gender is performative.2 By reputation, this model is frequently misunderstood and abused by people who only took a single course on gender studies, and I’ll note that I haven’t even taken a single course on gender studies. So it is with some humility that I’ll summarize, based on this interview, this article, and other basic references.

The theory of gender performativity explicitly rejects the view of gender as an essential property. Rather, we create gender by the way we act and speak. We do all sorts of little things to consolidate the impression that we are a particular gender. This implies that gender is inherently social; a gender not observed by anyone (including oneself) is not a gender. Gender is akin to a performative speech act. By saying “I apologize”, I am not merely describing the state of things, but apologizing by stating those words. Similarly, by saying “I’m a man”, I am not merely describing my gender, but creating my gender by stating those words.

Gender performativity theory is usually contrasted with naive models of gender, but it is also useful to contrast it with the self-identity model. Gender performativity theory is descriptive, while the self-identity model is prescriptive. In other words, gender performativity describes gender as it is, while the self-identity model prescribes gender as it should be. As such, the two models can complement each other. Judith Butler herself appears to support this view, arguing that we should disrupt existing gender norms so that people can have greater freedom to define their own lives.

3. Prototype theory

There are two schools of modern philosophy: continental and analytic. Judith Butler is a continental philosopher. But analytic philosophy is the kind that they teach in philosophy departments. Since I’m primarily influenced by analytic philosophy, I would deride Judith Butler as not very coherent. Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, you could deride as too ensconced in its ivory tower, having little to say of any social relevance. Indeed, I am not familiar with any analytic philosophy that specifically tries to address gender (although maybe it exists). But analytic philosophy did give rise to prototype theory, which I advocate applying to gender.

Prototype theory declares that concepts do not have clear and unambiguous definitions. Rather, when we think of a concept, such as “woman” or “man”, we have one or more “prototypes” in mind. New people are then categorized according to their proximity to the prototypes. The idea of “proximity” is not very well defined at the boundaries, which is perfect because it explains why gender is not very well defined at the boundaries.

Like the theory of gender performativity, prototype theory is descriptive, allowing it to perfectly complement the prescriptive identity model. The self-identity model describes an end goal, while prototype theory describes the landscape of possible strategies. Prototypes of gender are a social reality. We can respond to that reality by aligning ourselves with existing prototypes, adjusting existing prototypes, or creating entirely new prototypes.

4. Trans models

All of the above models have the problem that they weren’t created with trans people in mind. This is an unfortunate oversight, since the issue is of greater relevance to trans people than anyone else. Furthermore, trans experiences carry tremendous implications on the meaning of gender. To fill this huge gap, I wish to synthesize a model of gender that is based on modern trans discourse. I say “synthesize”, because trans perspectives are diverse–they don’t truly advocate any single model (except perhaps the identity model). There are also many, let’s call them pedagogical models, which are intended to help people out of their deep pits of ignorance, but are not ultimately great models.3 I wish to avoid these pedagogical models while also keeping things short.

Many trans activists make use of the idea of gender dysphoria.4 Gender dysphoria may involve a variety of experiences, including discomfort with the primary and secondary sexual characteristics of one’s own body, or a desire to be perceived, treated, or classified as a different gender. Of course, not everyone has every single symptom of gender dysphoria, so trans activists find it useful to distinguish between body dysphoria and social dysphoria. Either kind of gender dysphoria can be quite crippling, and it serves as a compelling model of gender. If you feel gender dysphoria related to a particular gender, you may be strongly motivated to disidentify with that gender–and then the self-identity model can step in to grant you the gender you want.

On the other hand, many trans and non-binary people say that gender dysphoria is not a requirement for gender identity. Part of the problem is that gender dysphoria only focuses on negative feelings. If you feel negatively towards one gender, there are still multiple other genders to choose from. And couldn’t a woman’s identity be based on positive feelings towards being a woman, rather than negative feelings towards being a man? There is also the issue of how bad a feeling needs to be to count as dysphoria, which is logically independent from the issue of how bad a feeling needs to be to motivate a change in gender identity. Finally, “gender dysphoria” can be strongly associated with certain narratives (ie body dysphoria specifically), and certain trans/non-binary people may wish to get away from those associations.

And that’s it! My descriptions of the models were very brief, but you may look up keywords to your desire. The point is not in the details of the models, but in the choice of framing. By all rights, the self-identity model should be the default model. Further models are needed as supplements, and I point to a few possibilities, but it always comes back to self-identity.


1. I suppose people may have conflicting desires, like when Alice wants to be a woman, but Bob wants Alice to be a man. We can resolve this in the standard way: your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Your right to define gender encompasses your own gender, but does not encompass mine. (return)

2. Note that Butler says gender is performative, not that gender is performance. The words are absolutely not interchangeable in this context. The difference between performative and performance is like the difference between action and acting. (return)

3. One of my early influences in learning about trans issues was Tranarchism’s “Not your mom’s trans 101“, which is very critical of “woman trapped in a man’s body” rhetoric, as well as the sex vs gender dichotomy. (return)

4. The concept of gender dysphoria is borrowed from the medical model of transgender people. Incidentally, the medical model is yet another model of gender not based on self-identity. But in the interest of brevity I’m leaving it out. (return)


5 thoughts on “Models of gender that aren’t based on self-identity

  1. epochryphal March 7, 2016 / 11:34 pm

    i find it absolutely fascinating+bizarre that you term self-identity model as prescriptive and performativity as descriptive. huh.

    ofc i have a continuous Giant Beef to pick with the entire idea of social legibility as a requisite precursor to identity. the idea that how we act and are interpreted, is more descriptive than how we interpret and describe ourselves…i will never believe performativity allots room for non-binary people to exist. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Siggy March 7, 2016 / 11:57 pm

    I am, of course, inserting a lot of my own interpretation into this post–Butler never directly says that her model is descriptive while self-identity is prescriptive. But I felt like that was a natural and charitable interpretation of what she said in the interview. e.g:

    In [Sheila Jeffreys’] view, a trans person is “constructed” by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct. But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions – or norms – that help to form us. We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones.

    The idea that gender is therefore inherently social is a somewhat less charitable interpretation. Like you, this makes me suspicious of gender performativity as a model. It seems to render private gender feelings incoherent, or at least categorically separate.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. luvtheheaven March 8, 2016 / 3:07 am

    Hmm… interesting post. 😉

    Tranarchism’s “Not your mom’s trans 101“ is a broken link…


  4. Siggy March 8, 2016 / 7:33 am

    The link was correct, but Tranarchism was down. I found a mirror. Thanks for letting me know!

    Liked by 1 person

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